New drought measures aim to fill short-term policy gap

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

On the back of the success of the WA Pilot of Drought Reform measures from 2010 to 2012, WA Agriculture Minister Terry Redman will this week announce details of a new round of initiatives for this financial year worth $2 million and aimed at building farm business capacity.

This is expected to help fill a gap between the end of the second phase of WA Pilot drought measures and interest rate subsidies under Federal Exceptional Circumstances relief in June 2012 and the start of new national drought policies that are being negotiated through the Standing Council on Primary Industries (SCoPI) and expected to be in place by July 2014.

Information about the new WA farm business capacity building strategies were expected to be released at the Dowerin GWN7 Machinery Field Days on Wednesday and it is understood these will focus on training workshops that will be able to cater for 200 farm businesses and be tailored to the specific needs of regions and industries.

Unlike the previous WA Pilot Farm Planning workshops, farmers undertaking the new round of workshops in 2012-13 will not be able to access grant funds on completion.

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A recent review of the WA Pilot drought reform measures carried out by the Department of Agriculture and Food WA (DAFWA) showed about 2000 individual producers from 994 farm businesses attended 2010 and 2011 Plan, Prepare and Prosper workshops. These were designed to develop or update a farm strategic plan and identify opportunities for improved management.

Of the workshop participants, 798 farm businesses received a total of $35 million through Commonwealth-funded Building Farm Businesses grants.

In the first year, 119 farms from shires that had been in declared EC circumstances before 2010 each received $60,000 grants - paid over four years - for business or landcare adaptation measures. In the second year, the balance of farms received $30,000 paid over two years and available grant money was fully subscribed.

Grant recipients were spread predominantly across the southern agricultural region of WA, including a big proportion in the South West during the second phase when the EC area restriction was lifted.

The total State and Federal government budget for trialling drought pilot measures in WA from 2010 to 2012 was $81 million and also included farm family, social and exit support - including farm exit grants of up to $150,000 - a mentoring program, community development grants and bush counselling services that resulted in 6196 extra counselling sessions staged across WA.

About 500 WA farming families received immediate income support through this range of drought pilot initiatives.

DAFWA drought pilot project team manager Jason Moynihan said the Plan, Prepare and Prosper workshops were a major platform of the WA Pilot measures, which were designed to move away from a 'crisis management' approach to a 'preparedness and resilience' approach for dealing with drought.

He said entry and exit survey data found 32 per cent of farmers who booked into the Plan, Prepare and Prosper workshops were motivated by the ability to receive grant funding. But this fell to 20 per cent at the end of the program, indicating farm business planning became highly valued on its own merits.

Mr Moynihan said less than half of workshop participants had written a business plan before undertaking the training but 87 per cent recognised the value of having a robust strategic plan that included risk assessments, family and business goals and identified areas for future growth.

"Confidence in implementing a strategic business plan increased from 67 per cent to 98 per cent for participants between starting and finishing the course," he said.

"Confidence in future viability of farms rose from 77 per cent to 92 per cent and improved drought preparedness, or resilience, rose from 62 per cent to 90 per cent.

"The survey outcomes have given us confidence that the workshop program met people's expectations and delivered something valuable.

"Involving wider industry consultants in phase two has meant an increased likelihood of farm businesses remaining focused and farm plans continuing to provide valuable strategies to keep businesses progressing."

Mr Moynihan said there were a high percentage of younger farmers in the 34 to 54 age group that attended the Plan, Prepare and Prosper workshops and a high proportion of women, accounting for 43 per cent of business members.

He said workshop participants were predominantly grain, sheep and mixed sheep-cereal producers, but there was also a good spread over the beef, dairy, vegetable and fruit producing sectors.

Mr Moynihan said all primary producers had been eligible for Plan, Prepare and Prosper workshops and this would also be the case for new 2012-13 workshop initiatives.

He said the outcomes from the two years of the WA Pilot of drought reform measures were critical to progressing the national process of drought policy reform.

WA's results are expected to continue being debated at the next SCoPI meeting on October 26, with a view to implementing a new national drought program in 2014 - potentially modelled on the experiences of this State.

The SCoPI has said that previous EC interest rate subsidy and farm exit grants did not assist the farming community to prepare for future challenges or improved risk management, and noted that these would not be included in any future drought policy package.

Consistent with past resolutions, the council agreed that a future drought policy package should equip farmers to manage their businesses in an increasingly variable climate.

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